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    Aquaculture manager knows his fish

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 17, 2003

    Bill Falls, who manages Hillsborough Community College's aquaculture program from its Brandon campus, knows a thing or two about flying fish.

    In 1998, Falls sent a batch of tilapia and killifish into outer space on Sen. John Glenn's flight on the space shuttle. One tilapia and three killifish survived, suggesting a possible food source for astronauts should a long-term habitat be established in space.

    Back home, the seafood and tropical fish industries are major businesses in the Tampa Bay area, where they rely heavily on fish farming, or aquaculture. Few know more about that subject than Falls, who recently sat down with Times staff writer Jay Cridlin to discuss John Glenn, blackened catfish and Frampton Comes Alive.

    Here are excerpts:

    * * *

    Who came up with the word "aquaculture," anyway?

    I've never seen the word defined. It goes back, history-wise, to the Romans. It comes out of two words: "aqua" and "culture" -- "water" and "culture." That's what it really means -- rearing things in water. Who came up with the word itself? I've never known. But the history goes back. Even in Egypt, they've seen paintings on tombs and pyramids of tilapia being cultured. And the Romans, before the birth of Christ, were culturing oysters.

    What kinds of marine life can you culture? What kinds can't you culture?

    Fish is probably the thing that most people think of. The state hatchery does redfish. Red drum. Snook is another one. And there are a number of marine fish. Now, there are some that you can't. Dolphin -- not the porpoise type, but the dolphin fish, mahi-mahi -- there have been some attempts to try to raise that, and it's not been real successful. Fish like sailfish are not likely. Sharks are not going to be cultured very easily. Now, there are some places starting to do tuna down in Australia and other places. They thought that would never be done. And now, Monterey Bay Aquarium has got a big display I saw two years ago -- they've got a big tank with large blue tuna -- 80, 90 pounds -- swimming in a live aquarium. But there are a lot of the ocean fish that probably are not going to be easily cultured, if ever cultured.

    HCC does a lot of research on live rock. Does this involve repeated listenings to 'Frampton Comes Alive?'

    No, it doesn't. On presentations I give, I write definitions on Power Point slides. When I say what my definition of what live rock is, at the very last, I put on there, "THIS IS NOT ROCK 'N ROLL MUSIC."

    It is basically just limestone mined out of the ground. You put it in the ocean, and you let things grow on it. You can go out there and get rock that's natural, but that's illegal. It's been banned both by state and federal because it was devastating the environment. People were actually breaking it off coral reefs, dynamiting it and selling it for aquariums. When you put it in an aquarium, it's very pretty. It's like a mini reef. It also has microorganisms that filter water. It's a natural filter. So it's like bringing part of the ocean into your living room or your home. And since it's illegal to go get it from the wild, the only alternative was to culture it. It's very good for your fish if you have a reef tank.

    Do you have a fish tank at home?

    No, I don't. But I have two koi ponds. I have a fairly large one, about a 6,000-gallon koi pond in my yard, and the other one is about 800 gallons. But I don't have my own aquarium. I have plenty here. And I also have one in my wife's office. They have a big reef tank with live rock in it.

    Are you a fisherman in your spare time?

    No. But I eat fish. I eat fish or seafood probably at least five times a week.

    What's your ideal seafood meal?

    Probably my favorite would be one of two things: either blackened catfish or tuna steak.

    And it doesn't bother you to eat it five times a week?

    No. I prefer it.

    Are there places around here people can go to buy or eat fish you've raised?

    We don't sell anything. That's something we don't want to do. We don't want to compete with our customers, basically. That's something East Bay High School had to deal with, too. They raise some fish and sell some to keep bringing money in. And they've been careful about that, because they could sell them and even maybe raise them cheaper, and then you're hurting your clientele. So that's something we don't really want to get into.

    How is aquaculture good for the environment?

    That's a two-sided coin, because initially, aquaculture was doing some environmental damage. That's kind of reversed. We have exceeded the capacity of the ocean to provide seafood for the demand. We cannot pull out enough stuff from the ocean. The environment has met its capacity. We're overfishing.

    So how do you meet the demands of those species, or seafood? You have to grow it in ponds or in tanks. Go into several restaurants. A lot of the stuff they have in Red Lobster chains are farm raised. Catfish -- that's the No. 1 aquaculture industry in the United States, is channel catfish. Most of it's coming from Mississippi. You're starting to see shrimp farming in Florida. They're doing it in fresh water. It's a salt water species, but once it's past the larvae stage, they can transfer it to fresh water, adapt it, and raise it inland.

    So there's lots of benefits. You can create food. You can create any ornamental things. Instead of going to South America and taking them out of the rivers, and taking them from the wild, or going to the coral reef, and taking fish away from them, you can raise them in a farm or in tanks and sell them without disturbing the environment or corals or rock.

    Tell me about the John Glenn tilapia.

    Lovie Hudson, who was an adjunct here -- still is -- has a cousin that works for NASA. They were in St. Pete at Christmas dinner discussing some of the things they did, and she said they were looking for projects to go up on the space shuttle. She mentioned that she worked with me -- we shared an office at the time. They said they'd been looking for some type of aquaculture project.

    I came up with some species we could get eggs from and put in a small vial of water that would survive. Tilapia was one, catfish was one, some ornamentals, killifish. We looked at where we could get the eggs from, what was available at that time of the year. We had to coordinate when they wanted to do this with the spawning season of the farms.

    We got everything worked out, and we got over to NASA. They loaded it into this control box, and then they put it into this experimental module that they put right into the bay of the shuttle. One person got to go VIP, right up to the closest place you could go to the shuttle launch. We had 44 people from the school go over there, including the president. We tried to get the president to go, and they said, "No, it's you. You're the aquaculture person, so you're the person we want to go out there." I was closer than President Clinton was at the time.

    Probably about two days into the mission, John Glenn went into the module and was exercising on a treadmill. His body heat made the temperature go up. They didn't realize this was going to happen. So now the people were speculating that the fish were dead because the temperature went up.

    It was a nine-day mission. Then they unload the payload, and we finally get to open it and see it, and there's this little fish swimming in there that hatched out in the shuttle. One out of four hatched. We had three out of four of the killifish hatch.

    We did another proposal for the international space station. It was a three-month project -- a much more elaborate system that will raise the fish up to edible size, which is what the long-term goal was. And they approved it. However, the space station is two years behind, and we have done nothing. We may never. But it's still on the drawing board.

    In the time you've been here, what kind of growth have you witnessed at HCC?

    Well, we've doubled in size. We got a competitive grant through Georgetown University in U.S. aid through Congress to start an aquaculture program for international students. In August a year and a half ago, we got our first students, and they will graduate later this year. Since then, we've been reapproved for another go-around. Last semester we had a record number -- 50 students. I don't know what we're going to have yet for this semester, but we're already up to about 30 or so, and registration's still going on. So we have seen leaps and bounds in the growth.

    As of October, we submitted a grant to the National Science Foundation, a two-year planning grant to become the national center for aquaculture education for the United States. If that is funded, then two years down the road, we would work with all these other schools that have aquaculture programs around the country to develop curricula.

    Is aquaculture economically sustainable for the long term?

    That's the key word, sustainability. It is something that is recyclable and sustainable. You can pull stuff out and keep culturing it over and over, which is true for any land crop, and basically, that's what aquaculture is. It's the same idea as growing corn or wheat or citrus. You're doing it in water, and you're doing it more efficiently than you can on land. I'll give you an example. To raise a cow, it takes 2 acres of grass. How much fish can I raise in 2 acres of water? About 10,000 pounds. So you can grow 400 pounds of beef against 10,000 pounds of fish in the same space.

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